The Tagalong OS

I’ve been thinking more about the Mac’s place in the world, and there’s more to worry about than “just” the hardware.

An Obligatory Look Back

Let’s talk about macOS’ release cycle. Here’s when every major version was released, and how long until it was replaced:

Release: Date: Time on Market:
Public Beta September 2000 6 months
10.0 Cheetah March 2001 6 months
10.1 Puma September 2001 11 months
10.2 Jaguar August 2002 14 months
10.3 Panther October 2003 18 months
10.4 Tiger April 2005 30 months
10.5 Leopard October 2007 22 months
10.6 Snow Leopard August 2009 23 months
10.7 Lion July 2011 12 months
10.8 Mountain Lion July 2012 15 months
10.9 Mavericks October 2013 12 months
10.10 Yosemite October 2014 11 months
10.11 El Capitan September 2015 12 months
10.12 Sierra September 2016

Time between macOS releases

There are some interesting things here.

In the beginning, Apple moved very quickly to get updated versions out the door. This was a necessity, as Cheetah and Puma needed a lot of work. They were slow and prone to crashing.

Starting with Jaguar, OS X began to stabilize. As things settled down, the release schedule slowed down. The result was that Jaguar, Panther, Tiger and Leopard where all big releases, chock-full of new features:

  • Jaguar brought Bluetooth support, Rendezvous (now Bonjour), iChat, QuickTime 6, Sherlock 3-powered Finder search and more.
  • In addition to new interface elements, Panther brought an improved Finder, Exposé, Fast User Switching, a much-improved Preview, Xcode and more.
  • Tiger was on the market for 30 months, and was the OS Apple used to transition the Mac to Intel. It boasted Spotlight, Dashboard, iChat AV, Automator, VoiceOver, improved .Mac syncing, a new version of QuickTime and more.
  • Leopard introduced Time Machine, Boot Camp, Back to my Mac, Spaces, Universal Access improvements, Stacks, Podcast Capture and Quick Look.

Several of these released were also impacted by the rise of the iPod and the creation of the iPhone. Most notably, Leopard’s launch was delayed as Apple scrambled to finish the iPhone. I’m sure even more of that sort of thing took place behind the scenes.

A Shift in Direction

In 2009, Snow Leopard shipped with “no new features,” despite packing a lot of work under the hood to modernize Mac OS X.

Snow Leopard

In the fall of 2010, Apple held its “Back to the Mac Event,” and showed off Mac OS X Lion, which was a big departure from Snow Leopard.

The philosophy behind Lion was pretty simple, according to Steve Jobs:

We started with Mac OS X, and we created from it a version called iOS, which we used in the iPhone. We invented some new things, and we’ve perfected it over the last several years, and it’s now used in the iPad as well.

What’d we like to do… We’re inspired by some of those innovations in the iPad and the iPhone. We’d like to bring them back to the Mac.

That’s what Lion’s about: Mac OS X meets the iPad.

The keynote went on to highlight these features in Lion:

  • Multi-Touch Gestures
  • App Store
  • App Home screens (Launchpad)
  • Full-screen apps
  • Auto save data within apps
  • Resuming apps when launched

These features ushered in the current era of macOS. Sierra may not be smothered in linen like Lion was, but almost everything we’ve seen since has been rooted Lion’s idea that macOS and iOS should have a lot more in common than they did initially.

The Current Era

Starting with Mountain Lion, Apple has been releasing new versions of macOS every year or so:

  • Mountain Lion brought Notification Center, Messages, Notes and Reminders to the mac.
  • Mavericks shipped deeper iCloud integration, Maps and iBooks. It also brought big changes to power management, including App Nap, Timer coalescing and compressed memory.
  • Yosemite is best-known for its sweeping UI changes, merging what was left of Aqua with the iOS 7 aesthetic. Notification Center gained widget support, while Continuity meant passing data and work between the Mac and iOS devices was far easier. CloudKit and were also featured.
  • El Capitan was basically a modern Snow Leopard, with much of the work being small refinements.
  • Sierra gave users the option to offload local files to iCloud and added support for Siri, TouchID and Apple Pay within Safari. Notably, iOS 10’s Messages improvements did not make it to the Mac.

Role Reversal

In looking at that chart and each release’s feature lit, it’s easy to feel that progress on macOS has slowed, despite the faster release cycle.1

In the early days, Apple had the pedal to the floor to get the OS to a point where it was usable for everyday consumers. With the advent of the iPod and then the iPhone, the Mac had to learn how to get along with its new, smaller siblings.

Today, Apple isn’t the Mac company. It’s an ecosystem company, and the driving force is the iPhone.

In the quest to find common ground between its two very different platforms, both iOS and macOS have seen changes. I think the Mac’s been at the short end of the stick, and Apple has been working to simplify it harder than it’s been working to complicate iOS.

From renaming iCal as Calendar to Notification Center widgets, from Continuity to iCloud Clipboard, Apple wants moving from the Mac to iOS and back to be as seamless as possible without actually combining the platforms. (That’s not to mention macOS’ aging AppKit and the empty promise of’s UXKit to help unify development across the platforms.)

Improvements like Mavericks’ battery improvements or the addition of TouchID are welcome. The engineering it must take to bring features to the Mac and iOS at the same time seems incredible to me. However, it sure feels that most of the new macOS features over the last several years aren’t just about the Mac.

Some think Apple doesn’t see macOS development as worthy of the investment it once enjoyed. I think the company views macOS as stable and mature, and doesn’t feel like rocking the boat, and instead wants to focus on making its entire product lineup work better together. To be fair, the Mac had a big headstart on the iPhone and iPad. 

Whatever the reasons are, macOS isn’t in the driver’s seat anymore. iOS is, and it’s attempting lugging macOS along with it as the iPhone and iPad mature. I can’t blame Apple for that; they are an ecosystem company. It is focused on the big picture, not just the Mac anymore. 

Mac users who don’t understand that will continue to be frustrated with the pace of things.

Those who do will still probably be frustrated.

  1. Some say that the feature lists have gotten smaller because of the yearly cycle, but I don’t fully buy that. iOS is on an annual cycle, each year, WWDC is full of new features for iPhones and iPads. Secondly, big macOS projects could be planned further in advance than one release.